9-30-05: Fairmount Indiana
Photo Credits: Jeffrey Round

Some people go to Graceland, others to the Dakota Apartments. I went to Fairmount, Indiana. If you recognize the name, you’re probably a James Dean fan.

Fairmount calls itself the “birthplace of cool” where “cool went to school.” James Dean was actually born a few miles further up the I-69, in the town of Marion. But he’s buried in Fairmount, and that makes all the difference.

Another signpost Dean fans know is 9-30-55, the date on which the 24-year-old actor died in a car crash. That was more than half a century ago, but last week an estimated 30,000 fans visited Fairmount to mark the anniversary.

I approached Fairmount with care. To me it’s a mythical place, like Hollywood or Oz. I’d formed an idea of it long before I arrived and I didn’t want it to change.

Many have made the Fairmount pilgrimage. In 1980 actor Martin Sheen helped plan the first annual James Dean Memorial on the 25th anniversary of his death. Singer Morrissey once dropped in for Dean’s birthday. Bob Dylan showed up late one night wanting admittance to the Fairmount Museum where two of Dean’s motorcycles are housed, the cemetery where he’s buried and the Winslow family farm where he was raised. Dylan was granted access to all three.

Everyone wants to claim him: “Without Jimmy Dean, the Beatles never would have existed,” John Lennon observed. Elvis, who memorized and recited speeches from Rebel Without A Cause, wanted to be Dean.

The urge to connect with Dean, even after all this time, is hard to explain. Teenagers see him as a youthful idealist confronting a world run badly by adults. Others share his love of acting and his passion to be true to himself.

But it’s more than that.

I was seventeen when I first saw East of Eden. I staggered out of the cinema, conflicted and devastated both by what Dean had shown me about myself and by his death. I could never know him, yet he seemed more alive than most of the people I knew. He was weird, moody and passionate, and he wasn’t afraid to parade his differences.

Today, Dean is an industry. His face adorns tourist brochures. Billboards proclaim Grant County as “James Dean Country.” In the Fairmount Museum you can buy James Dean watches, coffee mugs, belt buckles and even Christmas ornaments. In 1996, he was issued as a stamp.

In downtown Fairmount, nearly every street and storefront displays him. In and around Fairmount you’ll find Johnny Appleseed Park, the Beatniks Café, a Legend Diner (whose washrooms are papered in Dean stills), and a Jim Dandy Restaurant ‘featuring family dining.’ This is America’s secret ambition: to be a theme park of the safe, friendly and familiar—all the things Dean was not.

Each year Fairmount’s Museum Days Festival features free screenings of Dean’s films, a James Dean Run and the Little Jimmy Dean Look-Alike contest. On the streets, more than one license plate bears the numbers 9-30-55 or the nickname ‘Little Bastard’, the name of the so-called cursed Porsche Spyder in which Dean died.

And this year, as every year, crowds gathered on September 30th at Back Creek Friends Church, which Dean attended as a boy just down the road from the farm where he grew up. They come to hear Dean’s friends and relatives remember him. After hours of reminiscence, the throng walks to the graveyard a few minutes away.

Many are regulars. There’s Nicky Bazooka, a Dennis Hopper look-a-like, who rides in each year on his chopper with a bouquet adorning his handlebars. He rolls in, places the flowers on Dean’s grave and races off with a wave to the crowd. Another fan arrives before everyone else and stands all day long holding an American flag. He refuses to speak. As far as anyone knows, he’s also the last to leave.

The gravesite is legendary. The headstone has been stolen twice. It’s now reinforced with superglue and steel rods. Over the years Fairmount police have removed a number of visitors found sleeping, reading and even having sex on his grave. Once, seven university teachers were discovered conducting a séance.

Few actors alive today can hold the screen like Dean did. In his own time, there was Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift. All were Method actors, but what they shared was more than talent. It was something like charisma, the kind that pulls focus and draws you in. Dean might have been narcissistic and self-absorbed, both onscreen and off, but he was also luminous. It made him great.

Brando changed acting forever, but Dean changed the way we live. It wasn’t Brando's birthplace I visited last week along with 30,000 others. Brando was cool once, too, and still is onscreen, but he lived too long and changed too much to be a legend.

Legends don’t age. And the younger they die the better, like Sylvia Plath, Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin. At 40, John Lennon just squeaked into the club. James Dean is its stellar member.



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